Diagnosing Love:  A Look at Classical Sources

By Anne Garner, Curator, Rare Books and Manuscripts

1Galen_galenilibrorum_1525_v1_frontispiecedetail_watermark

Frontispiece from Galeni librorum (1525)

In lyric from the 7th Century BCE, Sappho offers the famous description of the symptoms of lovesickness:

My heart beats (but my blood is gone)
At the sound of your sweet laugh.
I cannot look at you for long,
I cannot speak.

My tongue is wounded, and a light
Flame runs beneath my skin.
In my eyes there is no sight,
But my ears roar.

Dank sweat and trembling pass
Where my body was before.
I am greener than grass,
I am almost dying.

(Sappho fragment 2, translation by Willis Barnstone).[1]

For Sappho, love is an affliction, with all the attendant symptoms of a bad fever: Beset by cold sweat, drumming ears, and shaking, the speaker of Sappho’s poem has also gone green.  Her lines also allude to another physical response to falling  in love, one taken up by Galen, Hippocrates, and other classical writers interested in clinical observation and diagnosis. Sappho’s description of the heart, with fire pulsing under the skin, suggests that love may also cause a spike in pulse rate.

Texts from Greek and Roman medical authorities support the idea that an increase in pulse rate might signal an unrequited love.  Both men and women were susceptible to physical illness as a consequence of desire in stories told by Appian, Plutarch, Valerius Maximus, Galen, and others; later sources in the early modern period, especially Dutch genre paintings like those of Jan Steen (see below), often argue that the malady is largely a female ailment.

2dixon_perilouschastity_steenimage_fig5

Jan Steen’s The Doctor’s Visit (c.1663). Taft Museum of Art (Cincinnati, Ohio).

Many of the earliest Greek prose accounts in classical writing date much later than Sappho.  Lovesickness is not mentioned at all in the core Hippocratic corpus, comprised of approximately seventy collected works by multiple authors in Ionic Greek.  And yet, the Greek physician and writer Soranus (fl. 1st / 2nd century CE) tells a story about the physician Hippocrates of Kos, born around 460 BCE. When Hippocrates visits the sick and lethargic king Perdiccas of Macedonia, he notices that his pulse increases each time Phyle, the wife of Perdicca’s deceased father, is near.  His health improves remarkably once Phyle establishes herself at his bedside (and, we are to infer, in his bed).[2]

The Roman physician Galen (130–210) relates the case of the wife of one Justus, kept awake at night by an ailment that she is reluctant to discuss.  After examining and questioning her, Galen suspects her to suffer from melancholy.  But when a visitor to the woman’s sick bed mentions he’s just seen a performance by the dancer Pylades, Galen writes that the woman’s “facial expression changed, and observing this and putting my hand on her wrist, I found that her pulse had suddenly become irregular in several ways, which indicates that the mind is disturbed.” Galen recounts that when other dancers are mentioned the woman’s pulse remained unchanged.  Pylades, Galen concludes, and her love for him, are at the heart of her illness.[3]

Galen also discusses the case of one Prince Antiochos, the son of the king of Syria (ca. 294 BCE).  Antiochos’ story appears in Appian’s Syrian Wars. King Seleucus the Conqueror, sick with worry over Antiochos’ sudden illness, brings the great physician Erasistratus to his son’s bedside. Erasistratus examines him, but can’t find any signs of disease.  When he questions him, Antiochos is close-lipped.  Erasistratus stations himself near the young man’s bed, and watches his physical symptoms when people enter and leave the room.  As Appian describes it:

He found that when others came the patient was all the time weakening and wasting away at a uniform pace, but when Stratonice [his stepmother] came to visit him his mind was greatly agitated by the struggles of modesty and conscience, and he remained silent. But his body in spite of himself became more vigorous and lively, and when she went away he became weaker again.

Erasistratus persuades the king to give Stratonice to Antiochus to marry, the only possible solution for his incurable disease.[4]

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Frontispiece of Ovid’s The Art of Love (1931).

All of these fallen hearts in the writings of Galen and others beg the question: how to treat a lovesick patient? The answer varied, depending on the source. The physicians in stories by Soranus and Galen conclude that relief could be found only in consummation of the relationship.  For others, the answer was more complicated. Ovid, who wrote more than a hundred years before Galen, is emphatic about the necessity of ridding oneself of desire. In his Remedia Amoris (“Remedy of Love”), a poem enumerating the cures for lovesickness, he writes:

I believe in drastic treatments only, for there can be no cure without pain. When you are ill, they deny you all the good things you crave and feed you nothing but bitter physic, and yet you suffer it willingly enough to save the health of your body. You must submit to the same treatment to save your mind, for it certainly is as precious.[5]

So what course does Ovid prescribe?  Ovid seconds Galen’s conclusion that sex with the desired person is a good idea, but makes the suggestion that the desired should be positioned in the most unflattering light possible.  If that doesn’t work, he advises the sufferer to avoid poetry (except presumably, his own), and move to the country.

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Philip Ayre’s Emblemata amatoria (c.1690)

References:
[1] Sappho & Barnstone, W. Poems. Los Angeles: Green Integer, 1999.
[2] Jody Rubin Pinault. Hippocratic Lives and Legends. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1992; Michael Stolberg. Uroscopy in Early Modern Europe. Surrey: Ashgate, 2015.
[3] Corpus Medicorum Graecorum, V, 8, 1.  Accessed online February 7, 2018. pp.101-103.
[4] Horace White and Appian, Syrian Wars. New York: Macmillan, 1899.
[5] Ovid and Charles D. Young.  “Remedy of Love.” In The Art of Love. New York: Horace Liveright, c 1931.

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